Industry Perspectives: Emerging Video Apps Need Programmability and Flexibility
A major problem for equipment manufacturers is that their products don’t meet existing video encoding standards, much less accommodate emerging standards. Hence, two major requirements for the successful deployment of new digital video equipment are software programmability and system flexibility.
The demand for digital video applications has grown considerably over the last few years and should continue to do so. A major problem for equipment manufacturers, however, is that by and large their products don’t meet the various existing video encoding standards, much less accommodate emerging standards. Hence, the two major requirements today for the successful deployment of new digital video equipment are software programmability and system flexibility.
Programmability enables consumers to download different video codecs directly onto their final products. System flexibility enables them to switch from one digital media standard to another or even run several simultaneously.
Four distinct markets for digital video equipment exist today:
• Video telephony—video conferencing and IP-based video telephones
• Surveillance—networked intelligent cameras and digital video recorders
• Consumer streaming media appliances—set-top boxes, personal video recorders, and digital media receivers
• Professional-grade broadcast systems—broadcast-quality encoders and multiplexers that process many channels of streaming video, as well as video transport and delivery tools in head-end systems.
No one standard could meet the different requirements of all these applications. As a result, several video compression technologies are currently used.
Video telephony systems are based primarily on the ITU H.263 standard. Surveillance systems use ISO JPEG/MJPEG and MPEG-4. Consumer streaming media appliances use ISO MPEG-2, along with proprietary video codecs. Professional-grade broadcast systems support MPEG-2. In addition, Microsoft’s Windows Media 9 and the H.264 Main Profile are making significant inroads into these markets.
Because new standards are continually emerging, products must be easily upgradable via quick software downloads. By making that possible, software programmability increases a digital video product’s shelf life. It also increases its viability in the North American, European, Japanese, and Asian markets—as a manufacturer could launch the same hardware but with different software for each market. As an added benefit, it lowers the manufacturer’s overhead, since the customers themselves install the software patch or codec upgrade they obtain over the Internet, rather than having it done by a company technician. This reduces the cost of support, troubleshooting, and new upgrades.
Chips that support video for these applications also simultaneously support audio and network streaming technologies. If the chips are fully software-programmable, video products based on them also enable customers to select any audio codec and any streaming format at any time.
Take video conferencing. The sluggish emergence of this application is due not only to slow broadband growth and limited available bandwidth, but also to the video compression technology standards on which it was based, ITU H.261 and H.263. The latest video conferencing products now support the newer H.264 standard, which uses half the bandwidth required by the earlier standards, offers excellent video quality, and supports video streaming as well as many error-resilient features. Because the previous-generation products didn’t support the new standard, OEMs whose products weren’t software-programmable had to design a new board or a new product that provides backward compatibility for the H.261 and H.263 standards, as well as H.264 support.
Indeed, the most up-to-date digital video equipment in all four geographic markets now incorporates software programmability and system flexibility. Powered by digital media processors, these products are fully software-programmable and upgradable.